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When Uncommon Sense is the Best Move (Chair Profile – Nathan Farrugia)

WHEN
UNCOMMON
SENSE
IS THE BEST MOVE

With little knowledge of the region, Vistage Malta CEO Nathan Farrugia launched Vistage United Arab Emirates to bring a needed community to expatriates.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Farrugia

When Nathan Farrugia was a young child in Malta, doctors diagnosed him with asthma so severe they advised him to stay indoors at all costs.

His parents’ response? “They signed me up for every sport under the sun,” says Farrugia, who became a celebrity athlete in Malta after running 27 marathons in 27 countries in 27 consecutive days.

This was Farrugia’s first lesson in calculated risk. Spend childhood shuttered indoors or search for sports at which he could excel? Farrugia learned that sometimes going against “common sense” is the most sensible thing to do. Like when Farrugia launched Vistage in the United Arab Emirates in January 2022, a country that he’d only visited once on a three-day holiday. But we’ll get to that.

First, a little about Farrugia: When he became a CEO at 26 with no corporate leadership experience, he dove into executive training to improve his game. A successful corporate run later, he discovered his calling as a coach.

Today, the former kid with asthma inspires leaders to win corporate races that would leave others breathless.

“All my big wins are watching my members grow,” Farrugia says. “In Malta, travel is a big industry, and it went dormant during COVID. We had members say, ‘My friends in the industry gave up their dreams, but thanks to Vistage, I was able to keep it going.’ These are the stories that inspire me.”

DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY

Early in his career, Farrugia found a mentor in Vistage Chair Peter Yeoman, who initially founded Vistage Malta.

“When I was younger, I was more cocky and brash and wanted to win. I grew up through my mistakes, through being a dad, through my Vistage group,” he says. “I realized that winning the short game isn’t everything. It’s shaped me.”

It also led him to want to help shape others. He saw the value of Vistage for himself personally, and he wanted to share that value with the rest of his business community.

Under Farrugia’s leadership, Vistage Malta’s membership grew from six to nearly 100 — a combination of expatriates and local businesspeople — with much of that growth happening during the pandemic.

“We increased during COVID because people were lonely,” he says. “We had open sessions that showed people what Vistage is and how it works, and quite a few people stuck with it.”

All my big wins are watching my members grow.

Like Farrugia himself, Vistage Malta is unique. Many are expats from all over Europe, people who are long on smiles but short on trust. Building community is as essential as building business acumen. Farrugia saw how Vistage could fill that need.

“In Malta, we’re very helpful and friendly, but at the same time, people hold stuff close to their chest,” he says. “I found that being transparent and open myself allowed me to lead by example.”

Part of that leadership centered on Change Makers, a “Shark Tank for social impact,” and one of the many nonprofits where Farrugia serves as a board member. Farrugia has Vistage Malta members choose a nonprofit to coach as they compete for funding.

Sharing their business skills gives Vistage members a greater sense of purpose — and strengthens trust among members.

FINDING COMMON GROUND

If things are going great in Malta, why branch out to the UAE? Farrugia gives a winning grin. More calculated risk.

“Some challenges are global,” he elaborates. “Most of the CEOs in the UAE are expats. It’s not their home. They don’t have family.”

Many of the CEOs are on extended contracts that last six months or a year. Not enough time to make meaningful connections. And, because they hail from literally everywhere ­— the U.S., India, South Africa — every encounter is fraught with cultural differences and opportunities for conflict.

This is where Farrugia’s life-earned philosophy can make a big impact. Don’t focus on the barriers. Where everyone else sees challenges, find the opportunities.

“Responsibilizing the group to take care of itself is important. I expect my members to be able to run a session if I can’t make it,” he says. “Not just the Chairs, but also the members. This gives them a sense of ownership.”

Leading by making your groups lead? Not a lot of people would attempt this approach, especially in unfamiliar territory. It goes against common sense. Then again, Farrugia learned long ago never to let “common sense” shutter him in.

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